When everybody on the bridge of the interstellar mercenary cruiser Zinnia fell into a magic sleep, I was busy using my scrubber attachments to attack the usual stains under the captain’s chair. There was a sudden series of thuds, and I noticed that everyone had either slumped over in their chairs or fallen to the floor.
At that moment the doors opened and about fifty tiny, filthy, hairy, gross little things streamed out, shrieking in some language I didn’t know. They started bashing in the consoles, whacking unconscious crew members upside the head with oversize clubs, and getting grit everywhere.
“Hey,” I said, boosting upwards on a cushion of very clean air. I waved my tentacle attachments in agitation. “Knock that off!”
But they didn’t. I hesitantly thumped one of them on the backside with a tentacle; it turned and hissed at me, hitting my shiny surface with a cloud of noxious breath and spittle.
“Goblins! Begone!” shouted someone from the doorway. A tall figure, cloaked in shadow and mist, stood there. Lightning crackled from his fingertips. A stiff wind blew in from the doorway. The goblins shrieked and ran out the emergency stairwell, down towards engineering and the pool.
The mist and shadow ebbed to reveal Lt. Hob, the captain’s aide, standing awkwardly in the doorway.
“Oh, dear,” he said glumly. He was tall, pale, gaunt, and had stringy blond hair.
He also, I noticed, had pointed ears.
“Did you do this?” I asked. “Is this some kind of mutiny?” Ships in the Senecan Mercenary Fleet sometimes mutinied. It happened. I didn’t like the idea of Hob in charge, but I’d deal. “Why did you change your ears?”
He turned and wiggled his fingers at me. Sparks flew, and for a split second my vocal processors cut out. Shocked, I frantically tried to reroute power and switch on repair programs. But then, a moment later, my voice returned.
“Don’t do that!” I said, thrown. I raced through five hundred thousand possible ways he could have done it. None of them made sense. I partitioned off a piece of my memory to keep working on it.
Hob tapped a long, thin finger on the side of the chair. “Well. That explains that,” he said. “You’re resistant. You’re the only Type–7 robot on board, yes?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling a little defensive about it. “Why?”
“That means it’s just you and me,” he said portentously. “Just the two of us, against the full power of the Nightmare Duke. We’re doomed.”
“Huh?” I asked.
“What kind of alien are you, again?” I asked as we made our way down the hallway towards his quarters. He walked, I hovered next to him. I’m sort of round and flat with lots of attachments, so I have to hover.
“I’m not,” he said. “Like I told you, I am a hob.”
“I thought your name was Hob,” I said.
“It is,” he said. “‘Hob’ is also the name of my species.” Goblins raced gleefully by, toting loot from sleeping crew. He glowered at them. “I am a member of the Court of the Ten Stars, or… I was. Before the Nightmare Duke banished my people, scattering all of us to the four winds.”
“That’s real fascinating,” I said.
“I didn’t think a tentacled hot plate like you would be interested in my travails,” he retorted. “The short version is that I came here and joined this fleet. It was a natural fit for me.”
“A mercenary fleet?” I asked. That didn’t seem likely. Hob had always kind of stuck out with this bunch.
“Yes. We hobs are good at keeping watch over those who need it most. We’re skilled at serving and cleaning.”
“But I do all the cleaning,” I said.
“Yes,” he said darkly. “I’ve noticed.”
“So that’s why you have those ear points, right?”
“Indeed,” he said. “I removed my glamour. It’s magic.”
“Magic,” I repeated, still disbelieving.
“If you don’t believe me, go inside my cabin and tell me what you see.”
I zipped through the door to his cabin. I’d been in here dozens of times before, and it had smelled like an old man and some kind of spice I couldn’t quite air freshen out, but there hadn’t been anything weird.
That had changed.
A howling vortex swirled beside his tottery shelf of cheap knick–knacks. Some choice scents and sounds wafted from inside; the smell of summer rain, the sound of firewood crackling, and the distinct aroma of rotting garbage.
“It stinks in there,” I concluded.
“Well, yes,” Hob said. “My people have been exiled from Faerie for five hundred years. The garbage does pile up.”
So much garbage to clean. I tapped my tentacles against the floor in anticipation. “Why is this attacking us now?”
Hob blushed. “There was a message board. I… posted a few things… videos about him. I wasn’t very nice. He finally found them and now he’s very angry.”
“So you pissed him off and now he’s trying to get back at you and us. Great. Can I just shove you through there and let him have you?”
He looked afraid. “Kidding,” I said lightly, though I wasn’t. “What’s the plan?”
“We wake someone up,” he said. “That’s the first thing. Then we go in there and close the portal.”
“Oh!” I said. “I know just the person.”
Hob did not like my idea.
“Not her!” he exclaimed when I toted the unconscious body of Sgt. Ndala into his room. “No. I won’t. Take her away this instant!”
“She gets stuff done,” I said. And it was true. She was startlingly good at being a mercenary. “If anyone can fuck up Faerie and what’s–his–name, it’s her.”
Hob considered this. “Put her on the table.”
I used several of my tentacles, which were wonderfully strong, to toss her onto his table. It creaked and groaned when she hit, but held. He bent over her and waved his hands around, speaking some kind of language that wasn’t in my data banks.
Nothing happened and I prepared to deliver a gloating speech about how his magic was all crap.
But then Sgt. Ndala coughed and sat bolt upright. She looked wildly around, spotted Hob, and grabbed him by the throat.
“Why the hell am I in your quarters on a table?” she demanded.
“It’s not like that—!” he squawked. She squeezed harder.
“Let him go,” I said after a long few seconds of enjoying myself. “He’s okay.”
She grinned. “Hey, Ms. Clean!”
I like Sgt. Ndala. She gave me a name beyond Fleet Cleaning Robot SFN–7894–Z, and she gave me a gender. I’m a fan of both of them. She is one of the few members of the crew I never have fantasies about spacing, and as a reward I make her often–filthy cabin extra shiny.
“Hey yourself,” I said. “We’ve got a weird situation.”
“I’ll say,” she said, dropping Hob. “This place smells like shit.”
“That’s from the vortex,” I said, gesturing with a few of my tentacle–like arms.
Her eyes widened. “Pretty,” she said. “Where’d you get it?”
“It is a gateway to Faerie,” said Hob with his characteristic aristocratic arrogance. “You wouldn’t understand what that is.”
“You mean there are real fairies? Like from holovision fairies? In there?” Ndala gaped, then grabbed and fondled Hob’s ears. “You got points! Are you a fairy, Hob?”
He yelped and shoved her away. “I am Fae, yes,” said Hob, rubbing his ear points.
“He’s a hob,” I filled in. “Which is a fairy that cleans things less well than I do.”
He shot me a dirty look.
“Also, the rest of the crew is in a magic sleep,” I added.
“Magic!” Ndala looked positively rapturous at the possibility.
“I’m trying not to think about that,” I said. “We have to close the portal to wake them up.”
“Aw. We have to?”
“Yes,” said Hob. “The goblins will destroy us if we don’t.”
She huffed. “Fine. How?”
“We must go into the portal itself,” Hob intoned. “There is great danger in the crossing. Once there, we must travel across the Plains of Suffering until we reach the Gorge of Blood. We find a way to cross that, and then we must climb the Mountain of Dread, battle the Host of the Duke, and then ascend the Tower of Woe itself. There we must steal the Orb of Knowing from the Nightmare Duke and use it to close the portal.”
“And if we don’t?” asked Ndala skeptically.
Right on cue, another little hairy guy wielding a battleaxe dove out of the portal, screaming a banshee berserker battle cry.
“Holy shit!” yelped Ndala, snatching her sidearm from its holster and blasting away at the goblin. She managed to shoot holes in the bed and a knick–knack collection, but finally hit it before it could whack any of us with the axe. An instant later it was a smoking pile of fur.
“Whoa,” Ndala said.
“My things…” said Hob, picking up a few pieces of smashed knick–knack. “I collected those figurines over centuries.”
I quickly moved over and sucked up all the fragments. Hob looked like he might cry. I deposited a neat little waste cube near his feet to make him feel better.
“So those things will keep coming if we don’t do something?” Ndala asked. “Gross. I guess we gotta go in there.”
“It will be an adventure, but I will guard us. I have swords and armor in the closet,” said Hob grandly. “I am skilled in fencing and the manly arts.”
Ndala gave him a disdainful look. “Swords? This isn’t the Middle Ages, Hobbsie.” He twitched—he hated that nickname. “I’ve got a better idea.”
The MZ–27 Springbok Supertank rumbled up the wide corridor, scraping metal away on both sides. Ndala sat at the controls, a manic grin on her face.
“How did you get that up here?” I asked. The lifts didn’t seem wide enough. Neither, to be fair, did the corridor.
“These things go out into space!” she said, clearly thrilled. “I had to blow a hole in the gym to get back inside, but it was so worth it.”
“You did check to make sure no one was inside, first, right?” I asked.
“Well, nobody floated by,” said Ndala, unconcerned.
The tank groaned to a halt outside Hob’s room.
“You can’t possibly mean to take that into Faerie!” Hob gibbered.
“Why the hell not?” asked Ndala.
“Faerie is a magic land! That is a tool of science!” said Hob, aghast. “The two don’t mix! And you can’t even fit it through the door to my room!”
“Well, I bet science is gonna kick magic’s ass,” said Ndala. “And as for getting into your room, stand back.”
She popped back into the tank and the big gun swiveled toward the bulkhead between the corridor and Hob’s room.
“No!” cried Hob, but it was far too late. Ndala blew a hole in the wall, and the tank rumbled through.
Hob and Ndala had the seats, I was awkwardly taped down in the back. In human ships, all the chairs are made for humans.
“Ready?” she asked. “Let’s go!”
I wrapped all my tentacle arms around the nearest pylon as Ndala hit the throttle and the tank lumbered forward into the whirling vortex.
There was a dreadful lurch. Ndala actually gagged, but held her lunch down. Hob turned paler. But then there was a sharp shock, and the tank ground to a halt.
“There! I told you!” crowed Hob. “Your scientific—”
Ndala pressed a button and the great honking engine of the tank roared back to life. “Sorry. Just stalled it.” She grinned at Hob. “Science!” Then she glanced out the window and whistled. “Whoa.”
“Welcome to Faerie,” said Hob sulkily.
The world around us was bright, shocking green. Ndala popped open the roof of the tank so we could look around. The smell of rotting garbage was everywhere, but that didn’t distract from the sheer beauty of the place. Beyond a tottering tower of garbage was the most pristine lake I’d ever seen, a tall white mountain, and trees of every color imaginable and then some.
But what really threw me was the fact that there was no roof at all overhead. I compressed myself on the floor of the tank. It felt, for no good reason, like I might drift off into that barrier–free sky at any moment.
Who builds robots with anxieties?
“This looks like back home!” Ndala said, wide–eyed. “Like Cascadia!”
“Yes,” said Hob, eyes bright.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” I said.
Ndala clapped her hands together with enthusiasm. “All right, troops! Let’s get this show on the road. So this is a magic planet, huh? Cool.”
“It’s not a planet,” Hob tried to explain, to no avail. Ndala was bad at allowing anything contradicting her original notions to penetrate her skull.
I liked her for that, too.
For the first hour or so, we didn’t see anybody besides a few goblins running full tilt toward the portal. Ndala took a shot at one but missed. It dove cackling into the undergrowth and out of sight.
“Get him when we go back,” Ndala promised.
As we went I busied myself by cleaning up in the tank to avoid having to deal with the scenery and the alarming lack of a ceiling. Whoever had last operated the tank had left it a pigsty. I slurped up garbage, turning it into harmless puffs of water and tiny waste cubes, which I was happy to store in a neat pile over in the corner of the tank compartment.
Ndala started keeping up a running commentary, just to annoy Hob. “Hey, another secret–whispering tree! Shut up, tree! I bet your mom’s a spruce or something.” Or, “Hey, is that puddle made of ice cream? Eww! It’s been out in the sun! Why is your home so gross, Hob?”
He eventually put his hands over his ears to block her out. She just talked louder or used the loudspeakers. And so we reached the first trial with Hob pissed off, Ndala in a great mood, and me convinced I was about to fly off into space.
“There it is,” Hob intoned gravely. We looked out onto what seemed to be a massive field full of writhing objects, shards of glass, and mean–looking plants. “The Plains of Suffering.”
“Let’s go around,” I suggested.
“That is the only way to the heart of this duchy of Faerie,” said Hob. “We must cross it if we are to prove ourselves worthy.” He glanced down at me meaningfully. “There are magical protections. I will chant us a spell of invisibility so that we may pass unseen between the spires. Bring what materials you dare, but don’t bring too much.”
Ndala folded her arms across her chest giving him a sardonic look.
“I did bring the swords,” he said hopefully.
“Dude,” she said, patting the metal dashboard. “Supertank. Remember?”
“There are magical creatures and carnivorous plants out there!” he protested.
“And if any come at us, we’ll shoot them. This thing has triple–plated Radovan steel and synthetic mesh shielding, treads that could go up a damn mountain and back, and six heavy ion cannons. Plus the big gun, which punched a hole in a starship a couple hours ago.” Ndala fixed him with a sardonic look. “And you brought some swords?”
It was seriously easy. The tank rolled right over the shards, and when the Doursnakes came at us Ndala blew them into little magic snake bits. By the time we rumbled out of the plains a half an hour later Ndala was cackling with unrestrained joy, while Hob looked like his dog had died.
“The Gorge of Blood is a rapid, rushing river of boiling, human blood,” said Hob as we drew near. “It’s fast, wide, and hot. There’s only one way across, and that’s to answer the questions of the Ferryman.”
“So why’s there a river of blood?” I asked. That seemed very untidy.
“And where’d all the blood come from?” asked Ndala. “Is there some sort of big thing that grinds up people, like an orange juicer, somewhere? Or maybe a blood bank?”
“It comes from a spring in the ground in the Highlands of Yawl,” said Hob.
“So the people juicer is underground?” asked Ndala.
“No! It’s—it’s a magic spring! It just is!”
“You can’t make something from nothing,” I pointed out.
“Conservation of mass and energy, dude,” said Ndala.
“You two don’t get it,” said Hob. “But you will. Here’s the Gorge.”
The river was in a steep canyon. It was full of dark red, steaming, sticky–looking fluid. Bubbles floated to the surface and popped. I was reminded of the floors when the ship made port and everyone got really drunk.
“Stinks,” observed Ndala, wrinkling her nose.
“We have to find the Ferryman,” said Hob. “I doubt the tank will be allowed to cross.”
He looked pleased by that possibility.
“Nah,” said Ndala. “We’ll just go through it.”
The roof clanged shut above us and the airtight seals engaged. “Hang on!” called Ndala. She hit the throttle and the tank leapt forward—right down the side of the gorge.
“No!” shrieked Hob as we plunged over.
“Relax!” shouted Ndala, that manic look back in her eyes. “Let your seat belt and the inertial dampeners do the work!”
We hit the blood and sank quickly to the bottom. It was impossible to see anything.
“Exterior temperature’s 50̊ C and climbing,” said Ndala. “That’s a hot mess out there.”
“You idiot!” cried Hob. “Now what do we do? We’re stuck here!”
“Stuck? Not even close,” said Ndala confidently. She engaged the tank’s aquatic mode. Slowly, sluggishly, the tank began to move again. “Ha! Science kicks magic’s ass again!”
There was a sudden jolt, and we stopped dead. Then there was a groan as the tank started drifting back down towards the bottom.
“What the hell?” Ndala exclaimed, jabbing buttons frantically. “Shit! Nothing!”
“Blood–sprites!” said Hob, pointing out the heavily reinforced window. A sinuous, fanged creature had attached itself to the front of the supertank. There was an angry orange glow all around it. “They’re dropping us back to the bottom!”
“Gonna electrify the exterior,” said Ndala. “Stand clear of the walls.” Hob jumped back from the console as Ndala hit a control, and the water around us sizzled with electricity.
The blood–sprite on the screen wasn’t thrown clear. Instead, it grinned toothily at us and doubled in size.
“Crap,” said Ndala.
Hob glanced at the sensor readings. “We’re covered in them. At least two dozen and more are coming.”
They began banging on the hull, which started to groan ominously.
“Gonna fire the escape thrusters!” said Ndala, suddenly all business. “Everybody strapped in?” She hit another control. Nothing happened. “Oh, man.”
The temperature in the tank’s cabin was climbing rapidly. We’d settled at the bottom of the blood river and had begun, terrifyingly, to sink into the muck below. The sprites banged on the tank’s hull; they were close enough that we could hear their eerie, distorted chanting.
There was a crunch and the lights went out. Somewhere I could hear liquid pouring in, and the cabin suddenly got much hotter.
“Hull breach!” Ndala shouted as the emergency light came on. “Damn it! Escape pod, come on, get out, get out!”
She dragged us into a narrow tube and hit the big red button. I curled all my tentacles around her and held on. The door closed, and then there was a lot of noise, jolts, and terror as the pod rocketed out of the tank.
“Get it off me!” Hob was shouting.
“Ow,” Ndala said. She kicked at the door twice until the explosive bolts caught and blasted it up and away from us. Light flooded in. We were alive and on land.
“Get off!” Hob screeched.
I realized that at some point I’d wrapped all my tentacles around his face. I lifted off and out of the blood–covered capsule. “Sorry.”
Ndala scrambled out after me, followed by a weary, disheveled Hob. I followed the two of them to the edge of the Gorge. There were little bubbles and a patch of oil where the doomed supertank had gone down.
“So much for science,” said Hob, not unkindly.
“Yeah, well,” said Ndala grouchily. “That was a dumb idea.”
“Uh,” I said, scanning around. “Guys?”
“It would have worked if not for those blood–sprites,” continued Hob. “And at least we got to the other side.”
“True!” said Ndala brightly. Her face fell again. “Aw. That tank’s gonna come out of my salary, I bet.”
“Guys!” I said, adding a note of urgency to my voice.
“What’s up, Ms. Clean?” asked Ndala, glancing back at me. Her eyes widened. “Oh.”
A horde of goblins surrounded us. They stretched as far as the eye could see, cackling and rubbing their furry little hands together in anticipation.
“Hey, Hob?” asked Ndala as they turned and stood, hands raised.
“You still have those swords?”
They trussed us up like turkeys, hung Ndala and Hob from poles, and trooped us off towards the looming castle of the Nightmare Duke. Me they weren’t sure what to do with, so they put me in a cookpot and magically sealed the lid. That was fine. I didn’t want to get out.
I did clean the goo out of the bottom of the pot with the few tentacles I could wriggle free, though.
We clanked along for hours until at last the lid came off the cookpot and I was dumped unceremoniously onto the cold stone floor of a vast outdoor amphitheater. Hob and Ndala, still tied up, were surrounded by goblins with big, nasty–looking axes and pikes. In every space of the amphitheater sat a screeching, cheering goblin.
A hush fell over the crowd as a magnificent Fae wearing a swirling black cape descended from the sky. He was tall with skin nearly bleach–white, hair the color of gold, and finely pointed ears. His cruel features betrayed nothing remotely soft or welcoming.
“Well then,” he said, coming to rest directly in front of Hob. “Welcome back.”
Hob looked utterly wretched.
“You’re the Nightmare Duke,” I said.
“Yes, machine. It is I.” He gestured to the goblins with the pikes. “Untie them.”
The goblins wiggled their fingers and the ropes fell away. More magic. I snapped a tentacle at one who got too close; he bonked me with his pike.
As soon as she was free Ndala snarled, “You fucker! Wake up our crew!” and leapt for him, sidearm drawn. He yawned and flicked his wrist—Ndala went flying across the floor. Several goblins immediately surrounded her, keeping her pinned with the business end of the pikes.
“Mortals,” sighed the Nightmare Duke. “So easy, so easy. Ah, Iassando Showerrain. You came home.”
Hob glowered at him. “Dad.”
“How are you, my boy?” asked the Nightmare Duke.
“Not well, since you banished my entire race from this part of Faerie,” he said sulkily.
“Well, you know how it is when your mother and I fight,” the Nightmare Duke said with a lackadaisical shrug. “I expect I’ll allow you back within the millennium.”
“Oh, so—” I started to say.
“Nightmare Dude is Hobbsie’s dad, and he’s a real prick who is probably gonna kill all of us just to make some dumbass point,” said Ndala from the ground. “Right? Get with the program, Ms. Clean.”
Both Hob and the Nightmare Duke looked impressed. “She’s astute,” said the Nightmare Duke.
“You don’t have to kill both of them,” said Hob. “Maybe just the robot?”
“That’s hardly any fun,” said the Nightmare Duke. He bared his sharp, silver teeth at us. “Especially when I can keep your crew asleep until they all die of starvation. Perhaps we can store our extra garbage there. I’d love to know what you’re going to do about it. Hobbsie.”
“That’s it!” cried Hob. He pulled a short dagger out of his belt. “I challenge you to—”
The Nightmare Duke hit him in the chest with a bolt of lightning.
Hob staggered, then spoke a few arcane words into the air. A crowbar appeared and started smacking the Nightmare Duke in the thigh.
But the Nightmare Duke was too fast. He changed into a hawk and soared overhead, diving at Hob’s head. The goblin crowd cheered.
There was a sizzling blast of plasma from Ndala’s direction. She’d rolled to her feet and fired her sidearm while the goblins were distracted. She missed the Nightmare Duke by millimeters, and the goblins tackled her.
“Kick his ass, Hobbsie!” she cried as she went down.
Hob turned into a tiger. He growled and leaped at the hawk, which turned around and shattered into a thousand pieces.
“Never catch me this way!” crowed the teeny bits of the Nightmare Duke. “Any of us you catch, there will be a thousand more!”
A zillion little Nightmare Dukes ran around on the stones of the amphitheater, just like bugs, while the horde of goblins cheered.
I hate bugs. And when I see bugs, I do what I do best:
I clean them up.
I raced around at lightning quick speed, sucking up every one of the Nightmare Dukes I could see. He was so surprised that he forgot to change himself back—or, maybe once he lost some of his parts, he couldn’t.
I didn’t care. In less time than it could take the goblins to react I’d finished my run, emitted some very pleasant water vapor, and stacked a neat pile of waste cubes there on the ground. Nothing else of the Nightmare Duke remained.
The crowd of goblins gasped.
“You… you killed him!” said Hob.
“Science!” shouted Ndala, triumphantly pumping a fist in the air. “Woo!”
The goblins roared, jumping up and down in fury. Suddenly the little guys with the pikes were all around us again, and they were not happy.
“Crap,” Hob said, quivering.
“That was really great, how you begged for our lives,” I said to Hob as we picked our way through the piles of garbage leading to the portal. A phalanx of grumbling goblins escorted us.
“I liked it when you cried,” added Ndala.
“Shut up, both of you,” muttered Hob.
“It was nice of them not to kill us,” I said.
“Wasn’t it?” agreed Ndala brightly. “And all because Hob’s the Nightmare Duke now!”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Hob sighed. “The title goes to my second cousin, but I get a certain amount of influence and a time–limited claim on pieces of the title while I’m in Faerie. It’s… complicated.”
“Still, we’re not dead,” I said. “Just exiled forever.”
“Which is fine with me,” said Ndala. “This place sucks! But Hob, you can return. Lucky.”
“I suppose,” said Hob. He looked a lot glummer than I’d expected.
We arrived at the portal and the goblins pointed me and Ndala at it with their pikes. I took one last longing look at the massive piles of garbage and zipped forward across the event horizon. Ndala and Hob were right behind me.
“Well,” said Ndala once we were on the other side, “I’m bushed. I’m gonna go take a nap.”
Hob looked back through the vortex. “This is going to require some explaining,” he said. “I wonder. Maybe a ship like this isn’t a good place for a Fae like me. Maybe I should learn to live in the world I’m from and acknowledge who I am. Or maybe I can be a bridge between worlds!” His eyes lit up. “Think of that! Real connections between Faerie and this world! Oh, just imagine how glorious it could be.”
Ndala looked at me, and then back at him.
Then she shoved him back through the vortex. It obligingly shut an instant later.
“Nice work,” I said. Shouts of alarm and irritation echoed from all over the ship, followed by high–pitched shrieking. The crew of the Zinnia was waking up and getting down to the business of slaughtering whatever goblins remained.
“Fairies on a spaceship are a bad fucking idea,” said Ndala.
“Agreed,” I said, and began to clean.